Touki Bouki: Djibril Diop Mambéty and the Post-Colonial Aesthetic
"Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." (Fanon 206)
Post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon here identifies a need for every culture to make itself known, to stake a claim in history for fear of being forgotten. Technological developments in the past century have seen film become a widespread medium, readily digestible by the masses, but while many developed countries have formed industries around film, for example Hollywood, the development of African cinema has been severely impeded. As writer Kenneth Harrow notes, colonial authorities in many African countries strictly controlled which films their audiences saw, and filmmaking was initially limited to educational co-productions between Europeans and Africans (Harrow 1999). It was not until the mid-fifties that the first African-directed films were being made, and after years of being dominated by European powers, as well as consuming their films, it stood to reason that these African countries would take influence from them in their own filmmaking. The early masterworks of African cinema were often spoken of in the context of European film styles such as neo-realism (Ukadike, Black African Cinema 89). The concept of a ‘Third Cinema’, developed by filmmakers Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas in the 1960s, was to underline this monopolization over cultural reflection. The term ‘Third Cinema’, as with its cognate ‘Third World’, connotes a sense of inferiority, of submission to the influence of its ancestors. Cuban filmmaker and writer Julio García Espinosa coined it an ‘Imperfect Cinema’ in his 1969 manifesto, accepting that a lower-quality aesthetic is inherent in the films of developing countries (qtd. in Ukadike, Black African Cinema 98-99).
It is easy to suppose from these facts that African films would always be seen as one step behind the films of the developed world. On the contrary, several prominent African directors have enjoyed not inconsiderable acclaim in Europe and the United States. Djibril Diop Mambéty’s feature film Touki Bouki (Mambéty, 1973) stands as a perfect example, having received the International Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Through close analysis of the film itself, one can simultaneously uncover the elements which launched it into popularity amongst European audiences, as well as those which mark it out as a post-colonial African film.
Touki Bouki follows the journey of Mory and Anta, two young lovers who are keen to break out of their mundane lives in Dakar and who stop at nothing to achieve their goal. Their encounters take them on a superficial rise through the hierarchy of Dakar society, stealing the clothes and car of a rich businessman before planning to board a ship on its way to France. The film’s climax sees the couple split, Anta on her way to France while Mory’s change of heart keeps him in the city he had previously rejected. The film has often been spoken of as markedly different from most African films, particularly in its avant-garde style which some writers have noted limits its appeal beyond the European festival circuit (Haynes and Okome 46). More specifically, the film’s experimental sensibilities can to some degree be traced back to the films of Jean-Luc Godard, in particular Breathless (À bout de souffle, Godard, 1959), with which Touki Bouki shares the jump-cut style, as well as an ironical veneration for the Western gangster. In this respect, the film superficially appears to be indebted to the styles of its predecessor, but in the same manner that Godard had appropriated the iconography of Hollywood to create a French identity, Mambéty reinvents the gangster figure again to echo West African attitudes (Pfaff, New African Cinema). By reconstructing the iconic figure of the big-screen gangster with reference to Godard’s À Bout de Souffle, Mambéty acknowledges its inescapable influence, but also offers his own critique, as Godard had done to Hollywood films. French cinema is thus the main subject of Mambéty’s pastiche.
Within the narrative of Mambéty’s film, France is seen as paradise, a place of wish fulfillment which is represented by the boat at the end of the film. The boat stays stationed just off the edge of the dock, never quite connected to the land, perhaps a reflection of the nature of France’s relationship with its colonies. Its rich French passengers, some of whom had taught in Senegal, speak disparagingly of the locals, identifying them as ‘unrefined’, second-rate human beings with only tribal masks to offer the world. Their discourse is unrelentingly bureaucratic in nature, the passengers discussing only the commodifiable attributes of Senegalese culture. When Mory and Anta prepare to board the boat, Mory suddenly realizes that to move to France is to knowingly subjugate himself, and the couple wordlessly decide to go their separate ways, Mory vehemently running away from the ship as if it were pursuing him. As Mory is the agent of the relationship, in contrast to Anta’s compliant reticence, his judgment of this concept of paradise is the one the audience is to take away.
The idea of France as a dubitable paradise is repeated in the film’s soundtrack. A short sample from the song Paris, Paris by African-American performer Josephine Baker forms a motif, with only the lyric ‘Paris, Paris, Paris/You’re a kind of paradise on Earth’ discernible. By extracting and repeating just this one line from Baker’s ode to her adopted city, frequently cutting it short, Mambéty trivializes the sentiment at its heart and keeps the audience from making meaning of it. The film thus appears to accept that France might be in some way the ‘greener grass’ on the other side of the bridge, but to pursue it is not necessarily to reach fulfillment. Mambéty himself has acknowledged the film’s message, saying that his protagonists’ dreams made them “foreigners in their own country” (Ukadike, The Hyena’s Last Laugh). Further exploration of this sentiment is evident in the earlier Black Girl (La Noire de…, Sembène, 1969), in which a Senegalese au pair is subjected to frequent humiliation by her French employers, or the recent Waiting For Happiness (Heremakono, Sissako, 2002), which sees a young Mauritanian man struggling to reintegrate in his home village after a work placement in France.
When critics discussed Touki Bouki as an avant-garde film, they were most likely referencing Mambéty’s editing, which often uses jump-cuts to juxtapose seemingly disparate shots, adding dimension to the narrative. One sequence in particular which makes extensive use of this style is the love scene between Mory and Anta. At the opening of this scene, Anta is seen leaning against the cliff that Mory had supposedly thrown himself from, her expression obscured from the viewer. The film cuts quickly between shots of Anta undressing and Mory’s motorbike, accompanied by the suggestive lapping of the ocean. It is only the shot of Anta’s hand clasping the dogon cross on the motorbike, encouraged by the sounds of her ecstatic moans, which confirm for the audience that the couple has had intercourse. That the couple’s sensuality is implied rather than shown suggests a complexity that deliberately denies the audience what it expects, and thus portrays the act of intercourse as emotional rather than functional. By never expressly showing the couple engaged in a sexual act, Mambéty alienates the members of the audience whose prior knowledge of cinema led them to voyeuristically anticipate some degree of on-screen sensuality. Discussing the supposed lack of eroticism in African cinema, Françoise Pfaff suggests interpretations of the editing in this scene:
“Is it a conscious or subconscious effort on the part of film-makers to ‘rehabilitate’ the image of their compatriots, and thus overcome the stereotype of the sexually potent African intensely propagated during the colonial era? Or could it be that these motion pictures have an inherent eroticism which would not necessarily be obvious to a non-African observer?” (Pfaff, Experiences of African Cinema 257)
While there may not be any right or wrong interpretation, it is clear that the scene’s eroticism is meant to be obscured from the viewer. Mambéty’s interpretation of the love scene, for all its evasive articulation, is a deliberate refusal to fetishize the couple’s intimacy, thereby avoiding further perpetuation of colonialist stereotypes. As a counter to the presumed potency of African sexuality, Mambéty renders the act of sex between African characters dysfunctional and devoid of sensuality. When Anta grabs the fetishistic dogon cross on Mory’s motorbike in the throes of passion, it is as if Mambéty is acknowledging the layers of metaphor at work in this scene.
If the film’s jump cuts are a pastiche of Godard, one cannot help but feel that Mambéty’s treatment of sexuality is a reference to another French New Wave filmmaker, Jean Rouch. Rouch was a renowned ethnologist and filmmaker who frequently shot cinéma vérité films in former French colonies in Africa. His first film, In The Land of Black Magi (Au pays des mages noirs, Rouch, 1947), was re-edited and dubbed against his will by Actualités Françaises, who added intercuts of local animals and even a narration by a Tour de France commentator to make it seem more objective (Kirkup). Rouch is said to have renounced this cut of the film, claiming it was an attempt by Actualités Françaises to preserve colonialist pride (Kirkup). Mambéty’s sex scene feels like a deliberate repudiation of this attitude – the purported objectivity one might have seen in these ethnographic films is removed, and the viewer is forced to interpret the scene on a humanistic level. The presumed primitivism of African peoples is also lampooned in the unnamed Tarzan-like figure, who appears briefly to steal Mory’s bike, only to crash it at the end of the film. One could read this unhappy ending as a denunciation of this outdated stereotype, or perhaps even an indictment on the disillusioned Westerner, out of touch with evolution and technology (Pfaff, Twenty-five Black African Filmmakers 222).
Like Actualités Françaises, Mambéty also uses intercuts of animals throughout the rest of his film, but the role here is metaphoric rather than contextual, and it is this motif of animals which best identifies Touki Bouki as an ‘African’ film. The title of the film, a Wolof phrase translating as ‘the hyena’s journey’, makes a direct link to West African oral tradition – the hyena appears frequently in these stories as a mischievous figure, marginalized socially for its selfishness as well as its repulsive smell (Ukadike, Black African Cinema 176), and sees representation in Mambéty’s film in the character of Mory. Wanting to escape the humdrum of his current life, Mory steals from a wealthy homosexual businessman whom he had tricked by acting as a potential suitor, in echo of the fabled greedy hyena. Though there is certainly nothing to imply that Mory has a repulsive smell, he is however seen as a pariah throughout the film, even becoming alienated from Anta’s group of friends when she turns up late for a meeting. One of Anta’s friends even goes so far as to lasso him before tying him to the back of their car, parading him around town with his zebu skull attached to his chest. Mambéty also draws frequent connections between Mory and the zebu, showing him riding a zebu as a child at the beginning and end of the film, and the presence of its skull on the front of his motorbike could be seen as fetishistic. The film opens with a montage showing zebu being slaughtered, and echoes the brutality in later intercuts showing a goat’s throat being slit as part of a ceremony. Writer Sharon Russell interprets these intercuts as articulating a social critique:
“The slaughter of the animals can be seen as the destruction of Africa’s resources to feed those who do not contribute to its development or as a symbol of a consumer society where the city despoils the countryside. The endless killing is contrasted with the ritual sacrifice of a goat, an action that maintains a connection to the traditions of the country.” (Russell 145)
Russell recognizes the film’s need to distinguish between ritual sacrifice and killing for consumerism, and hints that Mambéty may be offering a criticism of the latter by comparing the two. Russell also suggests that these intercuts are designed to imply how Mory and Anta may be treated in France (145). The zebu in the film are more than literal representations, serving as reminders of mortality and of Mory’s pastoral homeland. The film’s use of animal analogies in general also seems to raise a point about humanism which is archetypically post-colonialist – if Mambéty, an African director, is able to treat his protagonist like all manner of animals on film, then European films such as the re-edit of Rouch’s In The Land of Black Magi may retrospectively lose the privilege of their objectivity.
It is this appropriation of film symbolism which gives Touki Bouki its strength.
Mambéty acknowledges the impossibility of constructing new symbols, instead choosing to reinterpret existing symbols by placing them in unexpected contexts, as in the aforementioned case of the screen gangster. More specifically, Mambéty appears to be playing into a concept defined as ‘strategic exoticism’, consciously working within exoticist codes in order to subvert them (Huggan 424). In repudiation of the existing filmic representations of African cultures, Mambéty portrays France as a distant other, to which the protagonists are attracted without knowing much about it. Subsequently, one can view the repeated Josephine Baker lyric ‘Paris, Paris, Paris/You’re a kind of paradise on Earth’ as little more than an exotic trinket, drained of its original meaning by being paraded outside of its context, much like the tribal masks discussed by the French passengers aboard the boat. Paris is no less arbitrary a goal for the protagonists as Senegal is as a holiday destination for the passengers.
If one is to define the goal of Touki Bouki’s young protagonists, it has less to do with location and more to do with reinvention – Mory and Anta are in a sense making a journey for the sake of making a journey. Their strongest desire is to run away from home regardless of the eventual outcome, and this is shown in the ending which sees Mory essentially return to square one. In this analogy, the boat representing France is little more than a mirage, a traitorous illusion which does not provide what it seems to promise and serves to do no more than revitalize Mory’s connection with his hometown. This theme of a journey of initiation is seen repeated throughout African cinema, and also has its roots in African oral literature (Diawara, Experiences of African Cinema). But where Mambéty could have simply made a visual component to one of these oral histories, he instead chooses to communicate his ideas in a hybrid of styles that could simultaneously be called commercial and intrinsically African. This is not to say that Mambéty’s film is in any way ‘incomplete’ or ‘compromised’ – the film in fact benefits from this duality. Many elements of the film appear to reflect this hybridism, including Mory’s hyena-like traits and the psychedelic soundtrack. As a couple, Mory and Anta seem to also represent several hybrids – Mory’s pastoral upbringing and sense of trouble contrasts with Anta as a reticent, metropolitan university student, and both characters represent some degree of androgyny. Unable to fit neatly into prescribed categories, the couple exists outside of society, never fully integrated into their home community, and unlikely to find happiness in their fictionalized vision of France. When the couple splits at the climax of the film, Mory’s actions as the protagonist, accepting Senegal as the lesser of two evils, put him in a superior position to Anta. Through the symbol of the motorbike, Mory also manages to shake off the Tarzan figure, the embodiment of the primitive man which may in some way have been a comment on Western perceptions of African life.
Mambéty’s hybrid of styles achieves a similar goal – as the African masks in Black Girl are emptied of meaning by being placed on the walls of an affluent Parisian household, so too do the European film styles play a superficial role in Touki Bouki. Although the central plot of the film may occasionally borrow from Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967), the end could be seen by Western audiences as anti-climactic due to Mory’s decision to run back home, whereas African audiences would be able to identify with his supposedly intangible sense of fulfillment due to a familiarity with local oral literature. The Western viewer is led to believe that the story ends when the couple is on the boat, little knowing that this is only half the journey. The film may owe as much to French and American cinema as it does to African culture, but Mambéty gives the ending to his compatriots, who are guaranteed to gain much more from it. He may have wanted to achieve what director and writer Med Hondo had done with his own film, Soleil O (Hondo, 1967):
“It has often happened that those who understood [Soleil O] best are illiterate,’ arguing that it has always been the proletariat who must explain his films to the intellectuals because the former can identify with it.” (Ukadike, Black African Cinema 102)
By appropriating the mechanisms and stylistic traits of European cinema, Mambéty gives his film the veneer of a commercial product, but as the story relies heavily on knowledge of local oral literature, the film has an actively African agenda. The director himself supplements the theory that, while it may have come to acclaim in Europe, Touki Bouki is best appreciated by the African viewer:
“I am interested in marginalized people, because I believe that they do more for the evolution of a community than the conformists.“ (Ukadike, The Hyena’s Last Laugh)
Mambéty appropriates elements of European film practice in order to revere the complexities in African modes of communicating ideas and emotions. Writer Frank Nwachukwu Ukadike describes this as setting a trend of “total decolonization of both the content and style of movies” (Ukadike, Black African Cinema 172), succinctly articulating the film’s importance in cinematic history as well as the important role it holds for African audiences. Touki Bouki can in this way be seen as the starting point for true African cinema, and a key work in the cultural representation of the post-colonialist identity.
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